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Comptroller’s audit hits spending when Democrats ran County Legislature

The Erie County Comptroller’s office says it uncovered about $70,000 in questionable spending by the Legislature over the last five years Democrats controlled the body.

That is a tiny fraction of the roughly $15 million in expenditures that the Legislature racked up between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2013, the period covered under a new audit of the Legislature’s spending practices released Wednesday by the comptroller’s office.

Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw said the amount of the waste documented in the report is beside the point, because it still adds up to a misuse of public funds.

“The manner in which taxpayer dollars were spent is troubling. We are concerned by the blatant misuse of county funds. The lack of oversight on spending leaves us disheartened,” Mychajliw said in a statement announcing the release of the audit.

The 45-page report details nearly $5,000 that the Legislature spent on personal items. These included expenditures for snacks that were provided to outside guests who were honored by legislators at their bimonthly meetings; flowers; a shoe rack and the cost to stock some district offices with toilet paper.

The report also notes how the Legislature spent too much on toner for the printers it leased and how it continued to cover the cost of Internet access for one of the Democratic legislator’s district office nine months after it was destroyed by fire.

The report also documents how when the Democratic majority was in control it approved contracting the services of two photographers – one of them the wife of a former Democratic legislator – without first conducting a formal bid, which is what the law requires.

Mychajliw, who is a Republican, did not initiate the audit of his own accord. Instead, Legislature Chairman John Mills and the Republican-aligned majority caucus that took over the Legislature in January made the request back in February.

“I think the most important thing to note is the fact that the Legislature initially wanted us to look at just one year of spending,” Mychajliw said. “When we showed them what we found just over one year, they formally asked us to expand it to five years and go deeper.”

Mills has said the purpose of the audit was not to shame Democrats, who had until January been in control of the Legislature for more than three decades, but to seek recommendations on how to improve the Legislature’s operations.

“I thought it was essential that we fully understood what had been happening for several years under Democratic leadership,” Mills said in a prepared statement.

Legislator Betty Jean Grant of Buffalo, who currently serves as minority leader, was the last Legislature chairwoman, succeeding former Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli of Buffalo and current Legislator Barbara Miller Williams, also of Buffalo, respectively. All three are Democrats.

Grant on Wednesday suggested the call for a comptroller’s audit or review was politically motivated on the part of the GOP-aligned majority, which, after three decades in the minority, took control of the Legislature in January.

“They’re trying to put in the public’s mind that the Democrats have been very careless stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Grant said.

“I think the fact that there was no smoking gun or evidence of blatantly misspent taxpayer money shows that we were very conservative,” she added.